Gingerbread may have been brought to Europe in 992 AD by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis (in modern-day western Greece). Leaving Nicopolis to live in Bondaroy (north-central France), near the town of Pithiviers, he stayed there for seven years and taught gingerbread baking to French Christians. Throughout the centuries, many cultures have celebrated the art of gingerbread making, with even a gingerbread guild established in Germany in the 15th century.
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg, room temperature
2/3 cup molasses
4-1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2/3 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
2/3 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup meringue powder
2 lbs powdered sugar
1 TBSP vanilla
water to consistency
Cream butter and brown sugar in mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and molasses. In a separate bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. Fold into wet ingredients. Do not overmix. The dough will be very soft and sticky, but refrain from adding more flour -- it'll firm up after being chilled. Divide the dough in half and pat each section into a thick rectangle. Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 2 hours so that dough will be ready to use.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
Flour a clean work surface. With one chilled section, roll dough to 1/4" thick. The thinner the dough, the crispier the cookie. Flour both top and bottom surface of dough if too sticky. Cut out shapes with a floured cookie cutter. Minimize waste by making cuts close to each other. Transfer to baking sheet.
Bake cookies until just brown around the edges or until firm, about 8-12 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheets for several minutes and then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Decorate cookie with icing.
In large bowl of stand mixer, combine meringue powder, vanilla extract and a few tablespoons of water (add more if needed) and mix until frothy. Add powdered sugar gradually and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated and mixture is shiny. Turn up speed to high and beat until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks; about 5-7 minutes. Add food coloring if desired.
For immediate use, transfer icing to pastry bag or heavy duty storage bag and pipe as desired. If using storage bag, clip corner. Store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 3 days.